Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Firmament

I often muse on the "author's intent" defense of a literalist interpretation of scripture. Following that line of reasoning, if the person who is responsible for writing a passage felt that it must mean one thing, then it must mean that thing. If--as tradition has it--Moses believed that the world was created in six days, then it can only mean that the world was created in six days. You can't say that the Genesis story is a metaphor, or a symbolic expression of God's creative power. It has to be taken literally, because it was intended literally. To do otherwise is to violate the integrity of the text, or so the argument goes.

I can appreciate the intent of that approach. However, there are a few minor difficulties with it. Take, for instance, the meaning of the Hebrew word raqi. This word, which surfaces in Genesis 1:6 and Psalm 150, has been translated in a variety of different ways. In the King James, it is "firmament." In the New Revised Standard, it is "dome." In the NIV, it is the somewhat misleading "expanse." The raqi, according to Hebrew and other ancient Near Eastern cosmologies, was the solid barrier separating the earth from the waters of chaos. It was a fixed boundary, into which the lights of heaven were mounted. It is the windows in this solid barrier that God opens in Genesis 7:11, sending a veritable Double Gulp of a flood down upon the earth.

Abraham, Moses, and Jacob would have all looked up at the stars and seen them this way. That was their understanding of the nature of the universe. That was their intent in presenting the heavens in that way. Raqi was meant to be understood as a physical reality.

Moses--as an ancient Hebrew-- would have believed that a great solid dome with recessed lighting covered the earth. Has NASA been pranging rockets off this dome for years, then covering it up? I'm sure there's a web site somewhere arguing just that. When I place my eye to my father-in-law's nifty reflector telescope and see the rings of Saturn or Mars as a clearly three-dimensional object, am I defying the intent of scripture? Which leads me to far are we willing to go to defend literalism?

Faith is enough of a leap without descending to Flat Earth Christianity.